Look, here, at a photographic studio of the nineteenth century. This studio, located on the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, in New York City, belonged to one of the most reknowned photographers of his time, Matthew B. Brady.
Although Brady may now be best known for spearheading the effort to capture the Civil War on camera, for much of his career he ran a studio specializing in photographic portraits of the elite.
What was it like to have one's image captured in the early years of photography? How did a child or young lady prepare for a photographic sitting?
Photography democratized portraiture. Not everyone could visit Brady's fancy studio, but nearly everyone could afford a cheap tintype or a small-sized albumen print or carte de visite. Not everyone, however, approved of this democratization. Keirkegaard called photographic portraiture "a double leveling down, or a method of leveling down which double-crosses itself." He wrote, "With the daguerreotype everyone will be able to have their portrait taken -- formerly it was only the prominent; and at the same time everything is being done to make us all look exactly the same -- so that we shall need only one portrait."
Others disapproved of photography altogether. In 1921, Gustav Janouch brought Franz Kafka some photographs, telling him, "For a couple of krone one can have oneself photographed from every angle. The apparatus is a mechanical Know-Thyself
"You mean to say , the Mistake-Thyself, said Kafka, with a faint smile.
Janouch protested: "What do you mean? The camera cannot lie!
"Who told you that? Kafka leaned his head toward his shoulder. Photography concentrates one's eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can't catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling. . . . This automatic camera doesn't multiply men's eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly eye's view."
Last Modified: Tuesday, 26-Feb-2008 14:47:52 EST